MALIKIYA, Syria (Reuters) - Like her five sisters before her, Ahin left school to help her mother at home. Now she’s training to fight.
At a remote Kurdish militia base on the grassy rolling hills near Syria’s border with Iraq, the stocky 19-year-old jumps and crawls with rows of women in olive green fatigues. Their commander barks an order, and they take position and aim their Kalashnikovs.
The training camp is a powerful sign of the way Syria’s Kurds are working to create an autonomous region. While both Islamist rebels and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have sidelined women, in this Kurdish area, men are happy to fight alongside them. Kurdish military leaders say about a third of the Kurds’ fighting force are women. Many, like Ahin, would never have dreamed of taking up arms until recently.
“I saw all these women leaving home to defend our land and was inspired. I never thought about things like women’s equality before I joined the Women’s Defence Brigades. It was a strange decision for me to make,” she says, wiping sweaty brown curls off her forehead. “Now I’ve started a whole new life.”
Kurdish society in Syria may be conservative by Western standards, but it is less so than other communities in the country. Now, says Nisreen, the base’s 32-year-old trainer and commander, Kurdish women see an opportunity to tie their own liberation to the region’s.
“When there is war, violence doesn’t discriminate between men or women, so why do we? Women are just as much a part of this society. We will share in this task,” she says.
Like all the women interviewed for this story, Nisreen declined to give her last name.
The Democratic Union Party (PYD), the most powerful group in Syria’s Kurdish areas, has run the region since Assad’s forces withdrew in 2012, and created both the male and female militia groups that now defend the area. The PYD has ideological ties to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) in Turkey, which fought a three-decade war against Ankara and pioneered women’s militias and quotas.
Both groups require political and military leadership roles to have co-chairs - one man, one woman. The rule is ideological, but also smart politics in a society where women have few options in public life.
“That’s a whole extra bloc of potential constituents,” says Kurdish expert Aliza Marcus. “And because it offers options for advancement, women are often the most committed members.”
Nojan, 20, who adorns her plain fatigues with a black scarf embroidered with flowers, said female fighters were particularly proud of helping beat back fighters from al Qaeda during battles late last year.
“When we arrived at the front, it was dark, and al Qaeda was close to our position ... we shouted to them that we were women with weapons in our hands, here to defend our people to the death,” says Nojan.
“They told us to leave, they didn’t want to fight women.”
Ahin says that on trips home she is sparking heated debates about women’s rights with her brothers and father, who bristle at her critiques of male-dominated society.
“I want them to follow my path, but they need time,” she says, smiling. “When I lived at home, I was just a well-behaved girl. Here, I not only learned how to carry a gun, I learned how to speak. I became a woman.”
Editing By Simon Robinson and Richard Woods